PD Smith

Three New Books

29 May 2018 | cities, cold war, Japan, photography, Reviewing, Science, scientists, Tokyo | Post a comment

Sue Black has one of the most extraordinary and – it has to be said – unenviable jobs. She’s a professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology. The task of the forensic anthropologist is to read the narrative written into the body or skeleton in order to reconstruct “the story of the life lived”. Her work takes her to war zones and to the aftermath of disasters. She also helps the police identify bodies. It goes without saying that what she has to witness is traumatic and Black admits she has seen colleagues “haunted” by their experiences: “it has destroyed lives, relationships and careers”.

At the scene of a massacre in Kosovo, where she was assisting in the identification of bodies and the collection of evidence of war crimes, a policeman broke down at the sight of a two-year-old girl who had been shot in cold blood. Professor Black – “the mother on the team” – hugged him: “having chinks in your armour isn’t always a sign of weakness. It is often a sign of humanity.”

Black is often asked how she copes with the appalling things she has to witness. “I have never been spooked by the dead,” she replies. “It is the living who terrify me.” She says she’s “hard as nails” and I believe her, although she does admit to being scared of rats. But despite its often grim content, Black’s remarkable and utterly gripping account of her life and work – All That Remains: A Life in Death – manages to be surprisingly life-affirming.

It is also a thoughtful yet down-to-earth meditation on our attitudes to death in the modern world. Unlike most of us, Black doesn’t fear death: “thanks to her, I have enjoyed a long, productive and interesting career”. In fact she regards her own death as a “final adventure”, one she wants to experience and understand “as completely as is humanly possible”.

Unsurprisingly, she intends to bequeath her body to a Scottish anatomy department, like the one in which she herself has spent her working life, and she writes with real passion about “the mesmerising beauty of human anatomy”. She even hopes to end up as an articulated teaching skeleton: “as bones have a very long shelf life, I could be hanging around for centuries, whether my students like it or not.”

In The Lost Boys, Gina Perry explores what the sociologist of science Bruno Latour calls the “Janus face” of science: the contrast between the shiny public relations image of white coats and hard facts, and the behind-the-scenes details of how science is made which, as Perry says, is “messier, sometimes ugly, but always more interesting”.

Her subject is the social psychological experiments which Muzafer Sherif conducted in American summer camps during the Cold War, using groups of eleven-year-old boys. Although they were the “cream of the crop” in their communities, Sherif showed in his 1954 experiment at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma, how quickly these boys could degenerate into “disturbed, vicious…wicked youngsters”.

Sherif spent his career studying the role of groups in directing our behaviour. He was fascinated by “the power of tribal loyalty, in-groups and out-groups, to shape our worlds”. Unlike earlier attempts, his now-classic 1954 experiment ran according to plan, with the two groups behaving like warring nation states and then being brought together to face a common threat when the camp’s water supply was cut off by a rock fall. Perry shows how everything was carefully stage-managed by Sherif and his team, with observers secretly recording the boys, photographing them and taking handwritten notes of their behaviour, like some early version of TV’s Big Brother.

Perry has previously written a study of Stanley Milgram’s controversial obedience experiments and sees in Sherif’s work a similar lack of interest in the potential harm inflicted on his experimental subjects. The way the boys’ emotions and behaviour was manipulated by the adults is undoubtedly disturbing.

She contrasts the published results of the experiment at Robbers Cave with the raw data collected at the three summer camps used by Sherif and his teams. She also tracks down some of the participants – “the lost boys” – who had no idea of the important role they played in the history of social psychology. Today some of the subjects feel used. “It was a crazy situation run by crazy people,” says one. But Sherif’s assistant remains idealistic: “We were fighting prejudice.” Sherif later boasted of “laboratory-like” conditions. But Perry’s account amounts to a devastating critique of this seminal experiment, casting doubt on how it was conducted and the objectivity of the researchers.

In the end, however, she offers a sympathetic portrait of Sherif – a driven, temperamental man – finding answers to his “lack of compassion” for the boys in his own troubled youth in Turkey. Flawed though it may be, Perry finds in his research an admirable desire to create a world in which “wounds were healed and what was lost was restored”, at a time when the only future was one of war and conflict.

The writer and editor of the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma, “grew up with two cultures”. His father was a lapsed Dutch Protestant and his mother British, from an Anglo-German-Jewish family: “My destiny was to be half in, half out – of almost anything.” He always dreamed of escaping from the safe and dull cocoon of his upper-middle-class childhood in The Hague, “a world of garden sprinklers, club ties, bridge parties and the sound of tennis balls in summer”.

The opportunity to study in Tokyo on a scholarship at the film department of Nihon University College of Art provided the perfect way out, though Buruma admits that “Asia meant very little” to him beyond falling in love with the Japanese character Kyoko in Truffaut’s film Bed and Board (Domicile Conjugal).

Buruma arrived in Tokyo in 1975, aged 23. Although he quickly tired of his film course, Buruma immersed himself in the Japanese imagination and in this memoir of his six years in Japan he writes with real passion for both Japanese movies and the avant-garde theatre of the time. A Tokyo Romance is a wonderfully evocative account of cultural life in Tokyo in the 1970s, rich with anecdotes about the people he met and illustrated with his own striking photography, “the perfect art for a voyeur dancing he explores the around the fringes”. In particular, he explores the flight of his younger self from bourgeois respectability to the mysterious Other of Japanese culture with dry humour and real insight.

After six years in the country, Buruma was forced to acknowledge that even though he spoke the language and followed the local customs, he would always be an outsider, or gaijin (literally, an “outside person”): “every gaijin in Japan must realize that a gaijin he or she will always remain”. Some people, who had grown to love the country, found this difficult to accept. But Buruma – who grew up with a sense of being caught between worlds – found it liberating: as a stranger in a strange land, he no longer felt the need to conform or even belong. When he eventually returned to Europe, he brought this “radical autonomy” with him and he realises now that “Japan shaped me”.

I particularly enjoyed Buruma’s memorable study and it made me want to immediately book a flight to Tokyo, a city I fell in love with when I visited a few years ago. The details of all three books, which I strongly recommend, are below, together with links to my reviews in the Guardian.

All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black (Doubleday, £16.99) - Guardian review

The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment, by Gina Perry (Scribe, £14.99) - Guardian review

A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, by Ian Buruma (Atlantic, £16.99) - Guardian review

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